Support Systems

Afghan women learning to make fruit preserves in Kabul. Photo courtesy of Rosemary Stasek.

This week on War News Radio, we examine just how closely Pakistan’s equivalent of the CIA is tied to Taliban attacks in Afghanistan. Sonny Sidhu prepared this report.

Next, we check in on the current status of al-Qaeda with Bruce Riedell, a counter-terrorism expert at Brookings Institution, amid reports of of a recently discovered letter intercepted from senior members of the organization. Alex Imas has this report.

Then, we talk to a California mayor turned humanitarian aid worker, who has been working and living in Afghanistan for the past six years. Elise Garrity reports.

Finally, we look at what’s behind the rise in violence against journalists in northern Iraq. Elizabeth Hipple prepared this report.

These stories, this week on War News Radio.


VARIOUS: “From Swarthmore College, this is War News Radio.”

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: I’m Elizabeth Hipple.

ALEX IMAS: And I’m Alex Imas.

ELIZABETH RUBIN: The irony is that we’re giving a lot of defense money to Pakistan. That money often gets filtered to the Taliban, who then come across the border and kill American soldiers.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: The growing violence in Afghanistan prompts us to take a closer look at the status of militant groups, and the structures that hold them up. This week on War News Radio, Support Systems. First, we examine just how closely Pakistan’s equivalent of the CIA is tied to Taliban attacks in Afghanistan.

ALEX IMAS: Then, we check in on the current status of al-Qaeda, amid reports of of a recently discovered letter intercepted from senior members of the organization.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: Next, we talk to a California mayor turned humanitarian aid worker, who has been working and living in Afghanistan for the past six years.

ALEX IMAS: Finally, we look at what’s behind the rise in violence against journalists in northern Iraq.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: These stories, this week on War News Radio. But first, the news.

ALEX IMAS: Over 50,000 Iraqi police and security forces, backed by US troops, have begun a prolonged offensive against militants in and around the city of Baquba in Diyala province. Iraqi forces have swept the city, searching door-to-door for anyone affiliated with al Qaeda or various militia and insurgent groups. So far the raids have netted over 500 suspected militants. Earlier this week, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki offered amnesty to any militants in Diyala who agree to give up their weapons peacefully.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: It appears members of the Mahdi Army militia, loyal to Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, may be taking advantage of al-Maliki’s offer. A Sadr spokesman says the Shi’a militia, lately dormant after suffering a series of military crackdowns earlier in the year, is laying down its weapons for now. According to a statement read in many of Baghdad’s Shi’a mosques this Friday, the Sadrist militants will be asked to no longer carry weapons. However, Sadr’s spokesman, Salah al-Obeidi, said “resistance” will continue if a timetable is not set for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.

ALEX IMAS: The US and Iraqi governments appear to be nearing resolution on a security agreement that would set a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops, according to two Iraqi officials who are familiar with the negotiations. Senior American officials confirmed that an agreement is in the works, but it will still have to be approved by Prime Minister Maliki and the Iraqi Parliament before it is ratified. If passed, the agreement would stipulate that American troops withdraw from Iraqi cities by next July, and from the country by 2011.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: But there is still no good news on the key provincial elections law over which Iraq’s Parliament has been locked in stalemate for months. Control of the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk remains a major point of contention. Iraq’s Kurds think Kirkuk, which has a Kurdish majority, should fall under Kurdish rule. But the city’s ethnic Turkmen and Arabs point out that Kirkuk lies outside of the semi-autonomous Kurdish regions to the north, and argue it should be controlled by Iraq’s central government. With Parliament now adjourning for a month-long recess, the fate of Iraq’s provincial elections, which are slated for October 1, is now in question. The United Nations is urging Iraqi lawmakers to delay a decision on the city of Kirkuk for the sake of holding elections on time in the rest of the country.

ALEX IMAS: You’re listening to War News Radio. I’m Alex Imas. This week US intelligence officials reported having intercepted communications between Pakistan’s Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, and the militants who carried out a deadly bombing of India’s embassy in Kabul last month. This intelligence is considered by many to be one piece in a long string of evidence that the ISI is directly supporting Islamist militants in Afghanistan. War News Radio’s Sonny Sidhu has this story.

SONNY SIDHU: The intercepted messages cited by American officials provide the first solid evidence of something experts in the region have long suspected: America’s supposed ally in the fight against al Qaeda, the Pakistani ISI, actually supports the resurgent Taliban’s operations in Afghanistan, in effect actively undermining the US’s efforts there. According to New York Times Magazine contributor Elizabeth Rubin, the Pakistani military intelligence agency’s pro-Taliban stance has been an open secret in the region for years.

ELIZABETH RUBIN: It’s no surprise to anybody who’s been following Afghanistan. We’ve been saying this for years, and also the American military. Any time you meet a colonel there, they’ll say “We’re fighting an enemy that’s coming across the border.”

SONNY SIDHU: Reporter Elizabeth Rubin continues:

ELIZABETH RUBIN: When I went in 2006 to Pakistan, I met with a lot of Taliban there and, you know, they woud talk about their ISI handlers, and how the ISI essentially, the way that it seemed to work, is sometimes they use them, sometimes they don’t. And so the Taliban are in a precarious position where sometimes they’re going to be picked up by the ISI and arrested because Pakistan needs to make it look like they’re doing something about the Taliban, but they do get resources from them, and the way that I understand it is that there are elements within the military intelligence of Pakistan that are sympathetic to the Taliban.

SONNY SIDHU: Since 9/11, robust local intelligence, courtesy of the ISI, has been essential to American efforts in dismantling the al Qaeda terrorist network. But according to Lawrence J. Korb, a Senior Advisor to the Center for Defense Information, American and Pakistani intelligence’s interests simply diverge when it comes to the Taliban:

LAWRENCE KORB: After the attacks of 9/11, our cooperation has basically been mixed in terms of the ability of both sides to trust each other, because we have different agendas. The Pakistani intelligence is not as concerned about the Taliban taking back power in Afghanistan as we are, because they see the Taliban as a bulwark against India theatening Pakistan.

SONNY SIDHU: According to Elizabeth Rubin, gaining the upper hand in its perpetual war with India is a greater priority for the ISI than helping the US in the war on terror.

ELIZABETH RUBIN: In a way, Afghanistan has become a battleground, as it’s always been, for different intelligence agencies, so Pakistan and India are kind of battling it out in Afghanistan for power and influence. India has a huge presence in Afghanistan, both in terms of development money and their consulates all over the country. Karzai considers India a good friend, he went to university there, he has a lot of ties to India. The Afghans themselves prefer India to Pakistan, because they see Pakistan as the source of all their problems. So this is a longstanding feud that goes on in Afghanistan’s territory.

SONNY SIDHU: All this begs the question: Why can’t the United States rein in an allied agency, on its bankroll, that is all but openly supporting its enemies in Afghanistan? To answer this question requires an understanding of both the fractious nature of the Pakistani government and the state-within-a-state that is the ISI. Brian Katulis, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress:

BRIAN KATULIS: structurally they are part of the military structure for a long list of historical reasons they have operated with a great deal of autonomy and not sufficient oversight im not confident that the chief of staff of the army has a great deal of control over the ISI.

SONNY SIDHU: According to Elizabeth Rubin, it is unlikely that a handful of rogue agents are to blame for what seems to be a pattern of pro-taliban actions by the ISI

ELIZABETH RUBIN: The way that the ISI has always been described to me in Pakistan from former generals is that this is not, you know, a kind of rogue agency, that there is a hierarchy, people follow orders. If somebody at the top were to say, “That is it. It’s over. All ties with the Taliban are finished,” it would end.

SONNY SIDHU: Elizabeth Rubin stresses that the ISI is still a well-oiled machine,

ELIZABETH RUBIN: The question is “Who gets control of it?” And the person who’s in control, does he continue to do this sort of doublespeak policy where “We tell the world that we’re cooperating and we actually let the ISI continue to support the Taliban.” That’s how it’s been used traditionally. And it’s not an anarchic organization. The anarchy comes in when it’s not clear who has final say.

SONNY SIDHU: If Pakistan’s own government can’t control its Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, is there anything the US can do from a policy standpoint to snap the ISI back into line? Again, here’s Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress:

BRIAN KATULIS: We could look at the types of funding we give to the Pakistani government overall. We could look at how we might deepen our intelligence relations and look mostly at inducements and carrots, I’m not so sure that sticks and sanctions against the ISI would work, but to figure out ways to develop a common interest, and tackle some of these insurgent groups and the Taliban.

SONNY SIDHU: Wartime journalist Elizabeth Rubin frames the question a little more philosophically,

ELIZABETH RUBIN: So it’s, it’s, you know, the Million-Dollar Question: “What to do about Pakistan?” Do you cut off ties, cut off military aid unless they crack down on the militants and risk losing the cooperation that there is right now, or, do you sort of go along in this very murky, unsatisfactory policy, where you’re supporting a government that’s supporting the Taliban? That’s a big question, and I think the next American president is going to have to really grapple with that.

SONNY SIDHU: Until then, Americans will have to grapple with a frustrating status quo.

ELIZABETH RUBIN: The irony is that we’re giving a lot of defense money to Pakistan. That money often gets filtered down to the Taliban, who then come across the border and kill American soldiers.

SONNY SIDHU: For War News Radio, with Asher Sered, I’m Sonny Sidhu.

[Music Break: “Riding the Nuclear Tiger” by Ben Allison]

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: This is War News Radio. I’m Elizabeth Hipple. Last weekend, CBS News reported that it had received a copy of an intercepted letter from an al Qaeda leader in northern Pakistan requesting medical help for the group’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri. The letter stated that he was critically wounded by an American missile attack. While US intelligence acknowledges that it has little evidence to corroborate the report, it has once again raised questions about the state of al Qaeda as the seventh anniversary of the War on Terror approaches. My co-host, Alex Imas, spoke with Bruce Riedell, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution specializing in counter-terrorism.

ALEX IMAS: What kind of shape is al Qaeda in now compared to March 2003, when the US launched the invasion of Iraq?

BRUCE RIEDELL: I think compared to March 2003 al Qaeda has made a significant even astounding comeback. al Qaeda was in serious trouble after the invasion of Afghanistan. It was on the ropes, and it has recovered substantially since then. There are many ways to measure a group like this. One of the simplest ways is to measure how often it puts out public messages. Four years ago, al Qaeda put out a total of four messages in 2004. In 2007, they put out 97 messages. This year, they’re off to an even faster start. That’s a tremendous growth in the propaganda instrument. We can also measure it by looking at indications of terrorist activity. Every single major plot foiled in the UK in the last four years, British intelligence now publicly says was directed out of the al Qaeda core in Pakistan.

ALEX IMAS: We haven’t seen any attacks anywhere near the scale of September 11 in the last seven years. Is that an indicator of success in the US’s fight against al Qaeda, or does it indicate a shift in strategy on their part?

BRUCE RIEDELL: The purpose of September 11 from the standpoint of al Qaeda was to provoke the US into what it calls “Bleeding Wars”. Wars like the Afghan War was for the USSR. A place to grind down a superpower and ultimately defeat it. From bin Laden’s standpoint, he got a bonus. Not only a war in Afghanistan, but a war in Iraq, and those two bleeding wars, and the survival of the sanctuary in Pakistan, have been the primary focus of al Qaeda over the last 7 years. Of course, if they can find the assets to come up with another spectacular attack against the US, I’m sure they’ll do it. They tried in 2006, and thanks to the work of British intelligence, they were foiled.

ALEX IMAS: Let’s shift our focus to the recent CBS News reports about Ayman al-Zawahiri. If the reports turn out to be true, how significant would they be to al Qaeda?

BRUCE RIEDELL: Zawahiri is the ideological thinker of this organization. Over the course of the years since 9/11, through a couple of books and through dozens of audiotape message, he has laid out their ideological worldview. In one sense, he’s completed his work. That narrative is now finished and available for al Qaeda to use. He’s also an important aide to Osama bin Laden. But he doesn’t have the charisma or the central role in the al Qaeda mythology that bin Laden has. It would be a substantial victory for the US to get rid of this man, but it would not be the end, by any means.

ALEX IMAS: Al-Zawahiri is believed to be in the tribal regions of northern Pakistan. What kind of impact would it have on al Qaeda if the US could destroy that sanctuary?

BRUCE RIEDELL: I think that the protection of their sanctuary in Pakistan and along the border is Priority number one for this organization. This for them is the real central front in their war. If they lost their safe haven in South Asia, they would be very much disrupted and on the run. The good news from their standpoint is that today their sanctuary, their safe haven, is getting bigger, not smaller. There is less and less pressure on al Qaeda in Pakistan.

ALEX IMAS: So in your view, how much of an impact would the US focusing on attacking al Qaeda’s “core” in Pakistan have on disrupting what you call “local franchises” in Iraq and North Africa?

BRUCE RIEDELL: Anytime you can go against the core, you will make the franchises weaker because the core provides inspiration and central leadership. It also provides expertise. Occasionally it provides money to these groups. The franchises can operate independently, and have a great deal of tactical independence, but the core is where the brains of this operation are, and that’s where our counter-terror efforts should be most strongly focused.

[Music Break: “Jazz Scene Voyeur” by Ben Allison]

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: This is War News Radio. In 2004, when Rosemary Stasek reached her term limit as mayor of Mountain View, California, she relocated to Kabul, Afghanistan, where she had been doing aid work for the past two years. Today the 44-year old humanitarian aid worker has become something of a mayor there too. Elise Garrity spoke to Stasek about her work, and about changes in the country that many ex-pats haven’t stayed long enough to see.

ROSEMARY STASEK: Give me 20 dollars and I’m way happier than if you give me 20 thousand.

ELISE GARRITY: It’s not what you’d expect to hear from an aid worker in one of the world’s most impoverished countries. But Rosemary Stasek says that the projects she loves most are small-scale, direct grassroots. She’s been working in Afghanistan since 2002 when she was invited with a delegation of Afghan-Americans from her city to look at reconstruction issues.

ROSEMARY STASEK: The optimism was intoxicating. You came over here and you felt like you had a front-row seat at the re-building of a nation. It made you feel like you had opportunities that you could never have again in your life. To be right at the beginning of something that was being built from scratch.

ELISE GARRITY: Despite her background, Stasek says she never felt drawn to the political scene. Instead, she wanted to get involved with humanitarian aid, but found that the big organizations were getting ahead of themselves by limiting their focus to infrastructure.

ROSEMARY STASEK: It doesn’t help to build a bunch of schools and a bunch of hospitals if there aren’t teachers and doctors to put in them. And that takes a long, long time. It takes a long time to train a doctor. It takes a long time to train a teacher. And that has not received the focus I think that it should have.

ELISE GARRITY: Stasek founded an organization called ‘…A little help’, that works on small projects where they can make the most difference. She focuses primarily on women, who are outside the reach of mainstream aid.

ROSEMARY STASEK: And that could be out of the mainstream professionally – we work with women police officers, women army officers – it could be out of the mainstream educationally – we work with young women, contemporary artists – they could be out of the mainstream geographically – we work in girls education in the central highlands area, which has not gotten the support it should have.

ELISE GARRITY: After a few years of running back and forth between California and Kabul, Stasek decided to relocate. This way, she was able to take on larger projects, without being limited by her travel schedule. One project last year was inspired by a conversation she had with a US military official:

ROSEMARY STASEK: He said “Well, tell me what are some of the health care issues here in Afghanistan?” and I said “Well, that’s an easy one: maternal mortality” and he said “Well, there’s nothing I can do about that” and I went “Oh no. No, no, no, no.”

ELISE GARRITY: Stasek organized a program to train women police officers and army medics in emergency obstetrics. This approach was meant to simplify the emergency response process, and avoid issues of cross-gender medical treatment.

ROSEMARY STASEK: If it is perceived that it will bring dishonor to the family for the woman to be seen by a male doctor, life or death will have very little to do with it.

ELISE GARRITY: During her six years in Afghanistan, Stasek has launched a range of projects, from the renovation of a Kabul women’s prison to lessons in making fruit preserves. And after so much time in Kabul, she has found that her role in the ex-pat community in some ways resembles her previous job as mayor of Mountain View.

ROSEMARY STASEK: You really are a facilitator. You’re bringing people together, you’re introducing people, you’re welcoming new people here, and you’re just, after 6 years I think it’s inevitable that you become a fixture. This is a very transitory place. The average ex-pat is here about 6 months.

ELISE GARRITY: Stasek has seen more of the country than many Westerners, and says that much has changed in the time she’s lived in Kabul. The city today is not the same place she fell in love with back in 2002.

ROSEMARY STASEK: The optimism has died. The people have become much more realistic, and to a certain extent much more cynical about the results that the international community is having here.

ELISE GARRITY: But most of all, Stasek says, people are disillusioned with the Afghan government. She believes that the government is more crippling to the country than even the Taliban.

ROSEMARY STASEK: When I list the sources of instability in Afghanistan, the Taliban actually only make it to 4th on my list. Really the more serious issues are the resurgence of the warlords taking control of individual areas and taking control away from the central government, the drug trade which finances both the warlords and the Taliban, and for me the number one reason behind the current instability in Afghanistan is corruption.

ELISE GARRITY: Government corruption has been one of the biggest obstacles for Stasek in her efforts to provide aid.

ROSEMARY STASEK: It takes more and more work to get less and less done every day here. And for someone who has been here, who saw when things were easy to accomplish, that makes it very hard.

ELISE GARRITY: But Rosemary Stasek has not given up on Afghanistan. She continues working to give Afghan people a little hope, in the form of a little help. For War News Radio, I’m Elise Garrity.

[Music Break: “Riding the Nuclear Tiger” by Ben Allison]

ALEX IMAS: You’re listening to War News Radio. I’m Alex Imas. In the first six months of this year, there were 60 instances of killings, attacks, threats, and lawsuits against journalists in Iraqi Kurdistan, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. One of those journalists was Soran Mama Hama, shot to death outside his house last month. My co-host Elizabeth Hipple spoke with Hama’s former editor and the deputy director of CPJ about what’s behind the rise in violence against journalists in this region.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: Reporting in a war zone is obviously a dangerous job. One of those war zones is Iraq, where the nature of violence against journalists has been changing over the years. Recently it has seemed that the journalists who are facing the greatest danger are those in Iraq’s relatively peaceful provinces of Kurdistan. Soran Mama Hama, a 23 year-old reporter for Livin, a bi-weekly magazine published out of Sulaiymania, was killed last month, gunned down outside his house. Hama’s former editor at Livin, Ahmed Meera, explains what he thinks was behind his colleague’s murder.

AHMED MEERA: I believe that Soran’s killing was connected to two main factors. One was that he was a very active journalist for one of the free magazines here and the second reason was that he used to work for Livin magazine which is very hated by the local authorities. And I really believe that Kurdish secret forces are behind his killing, although I am not sure which party or group exactly.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: In other parts of Iraq, conditions are still too violent to allow journalists to work. Ironically, the comparative calm of Kurdistan has allowed journalists to write the investigative pieces that are now the cause of the threats and attacks against them. Robert Mahoney, the deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, says that it is the most outspoken journalists from independent papers that find themselves targeted by violence.

ROBERT MAHONEY: There are several papers and magazines that push investigative journalism and it tends to be the reporters that are working for those magazines who do muckraking journalism and investigative journalism. Being around, they discover facts and developments that people would like to keep quiet and those are the people who are getting threats.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: While journalists find themselves the victims of threats and violence because of their investigations, Mahoney does not believe that the violence against Kurdish journalists is systematic…entirely.

ROBERT MAHONEY: It’s not a systematic series of threats from any particular institution, although we did get a lot of people complaining about abuse particularly in the past by the security forces, the security service, the Asayaish, the Kurdish security forces.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: The Committee to Protect Journalists has met with Masud Barzani, the president of Kurdistan’s regional government, and has made public a letter to Barzani detailing recent attacks against Kurdistan’s journalists, including Soran Mama Hama, in the hopes that by bringing attention to the dangers that journalists are facing, Kurdistan’s government will feel the pressure to do more to protect its journalists.

ROBERT MAHONEY: We hope that by publicizing attacks on journalists that we’re putting the government and any authorities who would use force or intimidation against journalists, we’re putting them on notice that there’s going to be a political price to pay for any actions that opress or repress freedom that they may do. That’s the best safeguard is we’re on watch. When you know that someone’s watching you you modify your behavior. It is important to the Kurdish authorities that they have a good reputation abroad. They’re keen for good relations with the United States for example.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: Whether the government will provide the security necessary to support the freedom of the press remains to be seen. In the meanwhile, Meera has not allowed the threats that come with the publication of each edition of Livin to deter him from his job, though he does acknowledge the toll that working under constant stress can take.

AHMED MEERA: I have been detained myself in the past and Soran had been threatened before he was killed, although this is not going to impact our working strategy in any way, it has been a heavy psychological pressure on all of us.

For War News Radio, with Ayub Nuri, I’m Elizabeth Hipple.

[Music Break: by ]

ALEX IMAS: That’s our show for this week.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: War News Radio is a production of Swarthmore College.

ALEX IMAS: Visit us online to listen to archived shows, learn more about the program, or subscribe to our podcast. That’s at

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: On our site, you can also comment on this show or on our past programs.

ALEX IMAS: Our behind the scenes crew for this week includes Kristin Caspar, Marge Murphy, and Ayub Nuri. I’m Alex Imas.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: And I’m Elizabeth Hipple. Until next time, thanks for listening.


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